Obituary: Denis Mitchell
Thursday 25 March 1993
THE SCULPTOR Denis Mitchell lived just long enough to hear the news of the opening of his last major solo exhibition at the gallery Flowers East at London Fields. This retrospective exhibition was first mounted in St Ives for his 80th birthday last June and it encapsulated all his remarkable gifts which came from a long life dedicated to making art.
Mitchell was born in 1912 in Wealdstone, Middlesex. At the age of one he moved to South Wales, his mother's home country, and it was in Mumbles and Swansea that he grew up and developed his interest in art and his zest for living. Although he moved permanently to Cornwall when he was 18 he never lost the faint but distinctive Welsh resonance in his accent. He treasured the memories of his early friendship with Dylan Thomas. His exhibition at the Glynn Vivian art gallery in Swansea in 1979 gave him particular satisfaction.
But it was Cornwall which provided the right climate for Mitchell to emerge as an artist. Arriving in the St Ives area in 1930 he and his brother Endell earned their living by renovating cottages and cultivating a market garden. However it was the heady artistic atmosphere of the small town of St Ives which really attracted him and there he began to paint seriously.
By 1935 Mitchell was 'going flat out in all directions', as he put it. In 1939 he married a local beauty - Jane Stevens - and their first daughter was born in 1940. The war years saw him working underground as a miner at Geevor tin mine near Land's End. This episode was to have a great influence, for it was the carving and hewing of rock, the handling of tools and the manipulation of loads which gave him new skills and developed his sensitivity to three-dimensional work. When at the end of the war Bernard Leach suggested his name to Barbara Hepworth as a suitable assistant he was the right man at the right place.
Hepworth hired him for a day and he remained with her for 10 years - most of that time as her principal assistant, supervising the crafting of some of her best-known sculptures. By the early Fifties Mitchell's own work had made the transition from painting to carving and he was playing a full part in the buoyant post-war St Ives art scene. He counted among his friends Ben Nicholson, Terry Frost, Bryan Wynter, Sven Berlin, Bernard Leach, Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron, W. Barns-Graham and, of course, his mentor Barbara Hepworth. Today it reads like a roll of honour in modern British art.
In 1955 Mitchell was elected chairman of the prestigious Penwith Society, which was the exhibiting society for the group of abstract artists. It was a difficult task - St Ives art politics were legendary - but the calm sagacity and diplomacy of Denis Mitchell and his transparent goodness did much to harmonise the community and encourage younger artists. His studio in Fore Street, St Ives, was a welcome and hospitable place for a whole generation who came to think of him as a confidant.
During the Sixties Mitchell's own work flowered. His carved and polished bronzes with their flowing forms and aspiring vertical shapes won critical acclaim and he exhibited in London and New York. By the end of the decade he needed more space in which to work and a new era opened up for him when his old friend John Wells invited him to share his large studio complex in the village of Newlyn on the other side of the peninsula. Mitchell felt at home in Newlyn, which itself had a long and distinguished history as a place sympathetic to artists. It was here too that the young Cornish sculptor Tommy Rowe came to work as Mitchell's assistant. In their fruitful partnership Rowe worked alongside his teacher and friend and helped him to translate the endless sketchings and drawings into exquisite three-dimensional works in slate, bronze and wood. From 1973 to 1979 the British Council toured a large exhibition of sculptures in the Middle and Far East and his friend Marjorie Parr represented him in her London gallery.
At the age of 67 Mitchell felt that the retrospective in Swansea must surely be his last show. But still the ideas flowed and new works emerged. His stable home life with Jane and the support of his daughters and a wide circle of loyal friends and colleagues provided him with confidence and energy, even on the days when his physical strength seemed inadequate for the task. His final year was a fitting pinnacle to his career. Last summer the 80th-birthday exhibition supported by the Henry Moore Foundation gave a balanced and comprehensive view of his 60 years as an artist. A major outdoor piece was purchased by the Millfield Sculpture Park. At the very end of his life the thought of the final show with Angela Flowers delighted him and although his long last illness prevented him from travelling to London he tenaciously hung on until he heard that it had successfully opened. His deep faith and his utter professionalism remained with him to the end.
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